Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

An underlying theme in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” concerns the inroads that wealth can make on talent. Harry was once regarded as a promising author, a part of the expatriate movement that flourished in Paris following World War I. Hemingway, very much a part of this literary group, uses this story to articulate a great many of his own fears and feelings regarding his problems. The story has strong autobiographical elements, although the facts of Hemingway’s existence that it often suggests are not intended to be taken as accurate autobiographical accounts of his life.

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Harry’s friends once relished reading what he was writing. After his marriage to Helen, he moved into a different echelon of society and was thrown into the company of rich people who were more comfortable with him when he did not work. It is from these people he hopes to escape when he and Helen go to Africa for what he considers his own rehabilitation. Therefore, their trip is a basic one devoid of the luxuries they could easily command.

Throughout the story, Helen, seemingly in a state of denial about Harry’s medical condition, struggles to keep his attitude positive. In doing so, Hemingway creates a character whose optimistic sentiments strike Harry as the platitudes of a fool. Her sanguine sentiments are counterbalanced by Harry’s cynical outlook, with the result that they quarrel frequently. Helen wants to strengthen Harry with broth, which, in rare acquiescence, he drinks. In a moment of guilt over how badly he treats Helen, he uncharacteristically tells her that the broth tastes good.

However, what Harry really wants is his whiskey soda. He asks for it several times and sometimes gets it, but always the request and its occasional fulfillment are accompanied by Helen’s refrain, “It’s not good for you.” Helen’s concern for her husband is genuine. She is a mother figure, as Hemingway’s wives often were. Harry (Hemingway) both wants and needs a mother but also greatly resents his wife’s playing this role. The strains of the Harry-Helen conflict increase with every nurturing move that Helen makes.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

As the story of an imminent death, ‘‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’’ is suffused not only with images of death but also with a pervading sense of death’s presence. The story begins with death—‘‘it’s painless,’’ Harry says in the first line, referring to his oncoming demise—and ends with the ironic comparison of the woman’s heart beating loudly and the stillness of Harry’s lifeless body. Death is symbolically figured both as the pristine whiteness of the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and as the creeping, filthy hyena that lurks outside of Harry’s tent.

Harry’s attitude toward his death wavers during the story. At first, he puts up a brave and almost cavalier front, telling his wife that he does not care about his death and is resigned to it. He almost seems to be trying to anger her, knowing that she cares about him and that he can hurt her by seeming not to be bothered by death’s imminence. But in the italicized sections of the story, Harry’s bravado disappears, and he slips into the regret of a man who knows he is dying but who rues the fact that he has not accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. The gangrenous rot that is taking his leg metamorphoses, in his mind, into the poetry that he never wrote: ‘‘I’m full of poetry now. Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry.’’

Hemingway brings death into the story largely by the use of symbolism. The woman leaves the camp to go kill an animal, going out of his sight because (the narrator states) she does not want to disturb the wildlife. However, she clearly does not want to kill something in plain sight of her dying husband. The hyena, an animal that feeds on carcasses, skulks around the camp, a prefiguration of the rotting death that Harry fears. Even the relationship between Harry and his wife is a symbol of his imminent end: he says that the quarrelling had ‘‘killed what they had together.’’

But when death comes it is not rotten and lingering and painful. Rather, it is transcendent. Harry slips into a reverie in which he hallucinates that his friend Compton arrives in an airplane to take him to find medical care. As the plane takes off, it passes by the blinding white summit of Kilimanjaro. As Harry passes this image, the reader is reminded of the epigraph of the story, in which Hemingway says that ‘‘close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeing at that altitude.’’ Harry seems to have found something, though: a release from his earthly problems.

Artistic Creation
Harry’s failure to achieve the artistic success he sought in his life is one of the main themes of the story, and in this the character of Harry comes very close to being a representation of Hemingway himself. In the italicized flashbacks, we see Harry as he was in his earlier life, especially in Paris, where he lived in bohemian poverty and devoted his energies to writing. But he consistently regrets leaving that behind. He gave up, in a sense, and began spending his time drinking, travelling, hunting, and chasing rich women. He became ‘‘what he despised,’’ as the narrator says.

His perceived failures eat away at him like the gangrene that eats his leg. At one point he explicitly equates them: ‘‘Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry.’’ He uses his verbal talents to quarrel with his wife and instead of seeking to heighten his sensations he dulls them with alcohol. In this sense, the hyena that lurks around his tent is not only creeping death but also his pangs of regret at his wasting of his artistic gifts. Ironically, it is in death that he returns to creating. As he slips away, he hallucinates a beautiful scene: his friend Compton comes to him to take him to a hospital, and as they fly away Harry catches a glimpse of the summit of Kilimanjaro, a vision that awes him by its purity. Only here, as he dies, does he take part in the kind of creation and transcendence that he has always sought.

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